Mill with a Meaning

  • By Debbie Moose
  • Photography by Joey and Jessica Seawell

Under layers of flour dust lies the tumultuous history of Lindley’s Mill, which stood as an impartial witness to the struggle for American independence that divided many North Carolina families.

Lindley's Mill

When Joe Lindley walks down the hill from his Alamance County flour mill, it’s both a short trip and a long one. Historical markers stand here, noting a turbulent time in both the history of North Carolina and his own family.

The land around the peaceful mill, where Lindley has produced organic flours since 1976, was the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the American Revolution.

On September 13, 1781, the unofficial end of the Revolutionary War was only a month away. Six months earlier, Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene confronted British forces at Guilford Courthouse in North Carolina’s most famous battle of the war. The Battle of Lindley’s Mill, which took place on that September day, left an estimated 52 dead and 180 wounded. The tale of the battle involves kidnapped politicians, family conflict, and a colonel who used what today might be called terror tactics.

Intrastate division

Based on school lessons and common lore, many people believe that everyone in the colonies supported independence. Not true. Many communities were deeply divided between those who supported Britain, called Loyalists or Tories, and those who wanted independence, called Whigs. The issue also divided many North Carolina families.

Joe Lindley’s ancestor, Thomas Lindley, started the mill on Cane Creek in 1755. “I like to tell people there was a Lindley’s Mill before there was a United States of America,” Lindley says. “Thomas Lindley was a Quaker — nonviolent people who were firm believers in individual rights. It must have been a pretty tough course to take back then because you were probably expected to take one side or the other.”

Violent roving militias added to the problems. “There was a power vacuum in 1781. There were no official forces left here,” says Josh Howard, research historian in the North Carolina Office of Archives and History.

Greene’s Continental Army had moved into South Carolina. British Gen. Charles Cornwallis had marched into Virginia. The few hundred British stationed in Wilmington made up the only large body of nonmilitia troops of either side left in the state.

Militias were local groups of residents using their own weapons and equipment, not official armies. Individuals who joined Loyalist militias faced dire consequences. If caught, they likely faced imprisonment or exile; a few were executed. Fighting in North Carolina had turned into a civil war between Whigs and Tories for control of the state, with few connections to the larger war for American independence.

The conflict extended into the Lindley family. Three of Thomas Lindley’s sons were Loyalists, and one fought for independence, according to The Battle at Lindley’s Mill by Stewart Dunaway.

One of Thomas Lindley’s Loyalist sons served under an infamous figure in the state’s Revolutionary War history, Col. David Fanning. Fanning conducted random attacks designed to create fear and civil disorder, much in the style of terrorism. On the day before the battle at the mill, Fanning led a 700-man militia into the then-Colonial capital in Hillsborough. The brazen force kidnapped Gov. Thomas Burke and a number of legislators and other officials — about 200 people in all.

The ambitious Fanning planned to triumphantly deliver the state’s third governor to the British in Wilmington. “The main road from Hillsborough to Wilmington ran right through here. The road from the Piedmont intersected here, too,” Joe Lindley says. “You can still see the old roadbed where it makes the turn.”

Mills were common targets for armies looking to obtain food for men and horses. Cornwallis paid a visit to Lindley’s Mill earlier. “He purchased flour maybe twice for British troops. Purchased at gunpoint, that is,” Lindley says.

Word of the kidnapping reached Brig. Gen. John Butler of the North Carolina militia within hours, and he knew what route Fanning would take. Butler, who fought at Guilford Courthouse, quickly organized a force of about 400 men.

Butler got to the mill first and set up on high ground, surprising Fanning. Fanning sent the prisoners to nearby Spring Friends Meeting House for holding. Butler’s forces tried to reach them as the battle continued for about four hours. Eventually, Butler had to retreat before he was surrounded. Fanning was seriously wounded in the battle, and he hid out in the area while he recovered.

Butler tried to pursue the Loyalist forces, but because of a delay in reinforcements and other factors — including a rumor that the prisoners might be killed if he followed — the pursuit was unsuccessful.

Rescue, capture, and escape

After the battle, the militias fled so quickly that both sides had to leave their soldiers where they fell. But the men were not abandoned. Area residents — primarily peace-loving Quakers — flocked in to bury the dead and care for the wounded. Out of pure compassion, they took wounded men from both sides into their homes — small log houses owned by poor farmers. Nursing the large numbers of wounded soldiers must have been a long-lasting community effort.

A casualty of the battle was Thomas Lindley himself. “The family legend is that he died on the day of the battle from the stress of it all. He was 80-something,” Joe Lindley says.

Governor Burke and the other prisoners were delivered into British custody on September 24, 1781. Burke, who had been elected governor less than three months before he was seized, eventually escaped and made it back to his home in Hillsborough in early 1782. He died in 1783 at age 39.

The kidnapping didn’t give Fanning the boost he craved. When the British surrendered, he became a hunted man. He fled to Canada, but North Carolina didn’t forget his actions as a Tory militia leader. In an effort to soothe the wounds left by the war, the State Legislature passed an act pardoning those who fought for the Loyalists. Fanning was one of only three exceptions mentioned by name.

Deeper meaning

Joe Lindley’s parents purchased the mill and surrounding property in 1975. He restored it and taught himself how to mill flour. Today, he produces organic rye, wheat, and buckwheat flours and cornmeal. Aside from the satisfaction of bringing back a nearly lost art, he believes the mill has a deeper meaning because of its role in history.

“If I go down and look at the marker, you think this was something that happened 200-some years ago, but in the big picture, it’s just the wink of an eye,” Lindley says. “It makes you think that human nature doesn’t really change. What turmoil there must have been in the people’s day-to-day lives, with the battle and being in a war situation and even after that. It gives you pause to think.”

Lindley Mills
7763 Lindley Mill Road
Graham, N.C. 27253
(336) 376-6190
Hours: Monday – Friday
8 a.m. – noon and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Writer, editor, and speaker Debbie Moose is the author of four cookbooks. She is a former food editor for The News & Observer.

This entry was posted in Central N.C., Piedmont, September 2010, Small Towns and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to Mill with a Meaning

  1. carol morrison says:

    My greats grandfather was Thomas Lindley married to Ruth Hadley.
    My grandma was Elsie Patty Lindley, from Aaron Lindley of N.c.
    I have a lot of old photos.

    • Marie Ward says:

      My Great-great grandmother was Phebe Lindley who married Richie Buckner Richardson. They had Amos Richardson, my great grandfather, and they had Effie Richardson, my grandmother and she married Foust Thompson

  2. Mr James says:

    As per the lessons and information colonies supported independence but its not true, Thomas Lindley started a mill in the 1755, which is never an easy for him to compete the market.

  3. Martha Karen Lindley Brannon says:

    I am also a descendant of Thomas and Ruth Hadley Lindley and because of the Quaker (Society of Friends) marriage to 2nd or 3rd cousins was very common. My mother and father (George Ezra and Ruth Lindley) we’re both members of a Quaker Meeting and at birth became a birthright member. I do have records of my connections back to Thomas and Ruth. Would like to join a common interest group if there is one out there.

  4. John May says:

    There are many Lindley’s buried in this cemetery in Orange County, Indiana, many of whom doubtless came from North Carolina Cane Creek area.


  5. David McDonald says:

    James Lindley was also my 5th great grandfather. His son Jonathan moved to the town I live in (Powder Springs) in the 1840’s ! My great great grandfather Jonathan P. Lindley was captured at the Battle of Atlanta, died at Camp Chase and his body was stolen for a medical school for dissection practice !

  6. Melissa A. Lindley-Ross says:

    I also am a descendant of Thomas Lindley the founder of the Mill, I descend from his son Thomas, who I have very little info on, & then his son William, that came to Indiana with Jonathan Lindley on the wagon trains to Orange County, Indiana. I have always wanted to make the trip & visit the Mill & all the historical sites of our Family, it is so wonderful to see that the Mill is up & running and especially by a Family member. I have been researching and compiling info since I was a young girl, I guess the Quaker’s in all of us have kept us all yearning for more information of our history.

    • carol morrison says:

      where are you? I am a descendant of Thomas and Thomas 2 and Arron and William lindley by my grandma Elsie Lindley Goodwin in N.C.-carol

  7. Cindy Lee says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I’ll have to come up and tour the mill!
    My ancestor, James Lindley, was Thomas’ son and was hanged in 1779 in South Carolina (along with my other ancestor Aquilla Hall) for being a loyalist. The war certainly seemed to divide families. Such a shame.

  8. Thomas Lindley is my fifth Great Grnd Father.
    My family line comes from his son John, who married Sarah Pyle.
    It is nice to see another connection with a part of history, other than a name or record of some sort.

    • Faye Baldwin says:

      I am Faye Baldwin and live in Golden City, MO. I am a descendant of John and Sarah Pyle Lindley. My line goes to their daughter, Sarah. She married James Taylor and they left Kentucky and went to Cedar County, MO. I have lots of information on the Lindley Families. But do not know much about the Taylor family. Have never been able to find his parents.
      Faye Baldwin

  9. Farrell R. Lindley says:

    Thomas Lindley was my Great Grand Father (5th generation) My family tree is on Family Tree Maker (Ancestory.com) as FRLindley

  10. Irene Johnson says:

    My grandfather was Ralph Lindley who worked for Sinclair Oil Co. He died in the early 90’s in Arlington, Tx. He was born in Kansas and his father was George Levi, son of Isaac Lindley, who was a Quaker and born in Indiana around 1833. I have found articles about him and the Quaker church in Independence/Bolton Kansas, which Isaac donated the land for. I believe his (Isaac’s) father’s name was David. I would love to know more about the Lindley family! Thanks so much for this article and to all who have posted information here.

  11. Dwight B. Lindley says:

    All very interesting…….. Trying to uncover as much information as possible about our ancestors no matter how distant!

    Thanks to all for this great information

    Dwight B. Lindley
    Katy, Texas

  12. Rolf Cole Maris says:

    I am a decendant of George Maris who married Eleanor Lindley daughter of Thomas Lindey. George died in 1783 and Eleanor one month later both are bur. at Cain Creek Meeting. John Maris son of George moved to Ind. with the Jonathan Lindley party of over 200 in 1810. I have returned to NC living in New Bern and plan to visit Lindey Mill soon. Thanks for keeping the family business going.
    Rolf Maris.

    • Marilyn A. Schunke says:

      I am also a descendant of George Maris and Eleanor Lindley. I descend from their son Thomas (bro. to your John), who married Jane Holiday; William O., who married 1st Mary Jones and 2nd another Eleanor Lindley (dau. of Mary Pickett and Thomas Lindley), who both died in Indiana; John T. Maris (from 1st marriage with Mary Jones) and Elma Hadley, who both died in Coldwater, Kansas; my parental grandparents, Mabel Maris and Charles Woods Mullins, who both died in Oregon. Mabel married 2nd Arthur J. White in Coldwater.

      I would love to be able to connect with you regarding both Maris and Lindley lines if this site will facilitate it.

      Marilyn A. Schunke
      Covington, Washington

  13. Debbie, I just finished writing a book which includes a detailed account of the Battle of Lindley Mill (click on my name for the link). The information you provided is correct above, but I must add an interesting point that is explained in my account. Colonel David Fanning was originally Sergeant David Fanning under Captain James Lindley in South Carolina. James Lindley was the son of Thomas Lindley, Sr. who was one of the two original partners in the mill known as Lindley Mill. James was hanged at the fort at 96, South Carolina. David was very loyal to James and the hanging was part of the motivation that drove David Fanning as he captured Governor Burke and was leading him and 200 prisoners down towards Wilmington, NC when the Battle of Lindley Mill took place.

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  16. Joe Lindley says:

    Thanks for sharing!

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  18. Pat Barbour says:

    My grandmother was Ella Mae Lindley and lived in Indiana. She married Walter S. Dennis.
    I am 80 years old and am so excited to find out information about the Lindleys. Our son Steve Barbour is working on our genealogy on tribalpages.com-password Senate. Wish I could make a trip to N. C. to Lindley’s Mill and may, if not I’ve enjoyed reading about it. I am now living in Erlanger, Kentucky and my husband is a retired United Methodist pastor. My grandmother and her family went to the Quaker church in Tangier, In. and a church called Rush Fork nearby. Anyway, I’ve gone on long enough. Glad our son is working on this for me. Thanks so much for the information. Pat Barbour

    • Tal Hardin says:

      My Grandmother was Ella Mae Harris. Her mother was Harriett Lindley Harris from Snow Camp. She was a member of South Fork Friends Meeting as a child. Harriett is buried there.

      • Pat, I wanted to let you know that I recently published a book J. Van Lindley – His Ancestors, Life and Legacy. Please pass this information on to any Lindley descendants who you feel may be interested.

        I am including a summary below and a link to the website above. I have a 20+ page section detailing the Battle of Lindley Mill.

        J. Van Lindley’s ancestors were some of the early pioneers in America. They moved from England to Ireland, then on to Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Indiana. At each turn they intersected with great historical events – pre-Revolution, Revolution, Civil War and the Industrial Revolution.

        This book covers 5 sections:

        ⁃ Introduction: This section includes a short introduction and insight into the origin of the family name.
        ⁃ Early and then Immediate Ancestors: The interesting lives of J. Van Lindley’s ancestors are explored, including:
        ⁃ Thomas Lindley, Sr. (1705-1781), who donated the land and started the Quaker church Spring Friends Meeting in central NC and on whose land the “Battle of Lindley Mill” was fought. The full battle and events leading up to it are described in detail.
        ⁃ Thomas Lindley, Jr. (1740-1833), who donated the land in 1800 and started the Quaker church South Fork Friends Meeting in central NC
        ⁃ Aaron Lindley (1768-1853), who owned land in both North Carolina and Indiana
        ⁃ Joshua Lindley (1804-1881), one of the first Nurserymen in Indiana and North Carolina
        ⁃ J. Van Lindley: His life is explained in detail, based upon available historical facts and supplemented with family histories.
        ⁃ John Van Mons Lindley (1838-1918), the largest Nurseryman in North Carolina with over 20,000 customers and founder of many businesses, including Jefferson-Pilot Insurance and Pomona Terra Cotta (which supplied pipes for most of the sewers in NC from 1888-1970)
        ⁃ Legacy: J. Van Lindley left a large legacy, which spread, to many within his family and throughout his community of Greensboro and, through his companies, across the United States for many years following his death.

        • Claudia L McClellan says:

          My Grandfather was a Lindley When I was a little girl he took me there, I’m wish I new more about them my Mom live in Concord N.C. How do I fine more about them.

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  21. Thomas Lindley, son of John Issac Lindley, started a gristmill in the 1700s, shortly after arriving in Cane Creek (now called Snow Camp) North Carolina, from Ireland. Just to insure you don’t state he was Irish, his father John Issac Lindley was imprisioned in England for his radical Quaker beliefs. Once released he left for Ireland, where he died, but his sons; Thomas, John and Michael came to the Americas. http://thelindleyfamilyhistory.yolasite.com

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